Rancho Humo: Wet, Wild and Wonderful This time of year, Pacific-bound beachgoers cross the TempisqueRiver bridge and speed past miles and miles of dry pasture, baking under the relentless Guanacaste sun in this northwestern province.
Hard to imagine that just 26 kilometers inland from the concrete highway lies a vast water world, teeming with birds, crocodiles and wildlife.
The place is Rancho Humo, a new 1,068-hectare private ecological reserve facing PaloVerdeNational Park along the Río Tempisque, and stretching south to Isla Pájaros. The outstanding attraction here is the reserve’s 800 hectares of recovering wetlands (see box). For birders, it’s an avian Garden of Eden, with a who’s who of Costa Rican aquatic birds, all flocking here to feed on fish, shrimp and other watery creatures that thrive in the wetland’s brackish waters.
Add in a healthy population of crocodiles, coatis, deer, raccoons and other animals that enjoy a water-based diet, and you have an astonishing abundance of wildlife.
While the Palo Verde wetlands along the opposite side of the TempisqueRiver may be better known, what sets Rancho Humo apart is that you can actually immerse yourself in these wetlands. You don’t just skirt them in a boat on the riverside, or look down on them from a land-based observation post. Thanks to 13 km of earthen dikes, you can crisscross the marsh, riding in a quiet, pollution-free, electric cart. This unique wetlands tour brings you almost nose-to-beak with aquatic birds you normally have to view from a distance through binoculars. It’s a paradise for nature photographers, too, with birds and animals so intent on fishing and feeding, you can easily get within close-up focusing range.
Resident naturalist guide Cristian Gamboa took me on my first foray into the Rancho Humo wetlands in January. The two of us set off at 4 p.m., with late-afternoon light burnishing the russets and yellows of the dry-season landscape: tall grasses, thorny acacia trees and leafless palo verde, interspersed with reflecting lagoons and canals.
The marsh stretches all the way west to the scrubby, humped-back limestone hills of the Cerros de Nicoya and east to the river. Stately, tall great egrets dotted the grasslands, standing like sentries. Overhead, tricolored and great blue herons gracefully glided, and black-bellied whistling ducks flew by in perfect V formations.
Serene can’t begin to describe the otherworldly aura here. There isn’t a single human sound beyond the crunching of the dry grass under the cart’s wheels. But it’s not quiet, by any means. Birds are noisy, especially the 50 or so red-winged blackbirds that were shrilly calling from the branches of two leafless trees. Then there was a clacking sound in the lagoon to our left, and I turned my head just in time to see a juvenile crocodile with its head lifted above the water, rapidly snapping its jaws open and shut before diving under.
The wetlands are the ideal nursery for young crocodiles, explained Gamboa, an excellent bilingual natural-history guide. But once the crocs approach two meters in length, they head out to the wider river. It’s also a nursery for many other watery creatures and for birds. We watched a mother northern jacana lead an irregular troop of chicks over patches of water lilies.
What I wasn’t expecting to see, however, was a huge reddish pig, almost hippo-size, cooling off in a canal and tending to three hefty piglets. These pigs are more or less feral, Gamboa said. Before Rancho Humo became a reserve, about 300 roamed the wetlands. Local farmers let the adult pigs roam free and breed, but then come to collect the piglets when they are a marketable size. Most of the pigs have been evicted from the Rancho Humo wetlands; the ones we saw belonged to a neighboring property.
Visitors may also be surprised at first to see cattle grazing in the wetlands. They are actually there for a very good purpose. Not only do they crop the grasses, but their hooves break up the roots of the cattail grasses that quickly become invasive if not controlled and limit the amount of open water the wetlands need to stay healthy. Rancho Humo is still a working ranch, with about 600 head of cattle.
ursThe best time for birding or any wildlife viewing, of course, is early morning. Gamboa and I were back on the dikes at 6 a.m., this time on foot. Very quietly we approached the first flock of birds that numbered well over 200. Our presence caused a few ruffled feathers, but most of the birds stayed put. In one glance we could see scores of black-billed wood storks feeding alongside just about every species of heron and egret, plus roseate spoonbills, anhingas, black-necked stilts, white ibis, northern jacanas, purple gallinules and limpkins – a cast of hundreds. The stars of the show, though, were three huge jabiru storks, recognizable by their scarlet neck ruffs. Sharp-eyed green herons and ringed kingfishers occupied available tree snags, scanning the water for fish. Higher up in the trees, mangrove hawks and crested caracaras perched, eyes searching for prey.
At the end of the dike, we stopped to look at the main intake lock, where Gamboa explained how water is drawn from the river during high tide, which averages between two to three meters each day. The water is then distributed by a system of 14 more locks throughout the wetland. A huge ctenosaurus (garrobo), in bright blue breeding splendor, peeked at us from around the corner of a trunk, and a black-headed trogon peered down from a branch of the same tree. On the riverside edge of Rancho Humo, 7 km of mangrove provide habitat for some specialized species, including mangrove cuckoos, which we were lucky enough to spot. Walking back along the dike, we kept a respectful distance as a group of female coatis shepherded their nursery of youngsters across the path.
Apart from wetlands and mangrove, Rancho Humo also has a third habitat: a patch of dry tropical forest. Gamboa led the way along the short forest trail, crossing arched bridges over now-dry streams to a clearing among tall cenízaro and Guanacaste trees. We were greeted by the hoots and roars of a troop of howler monkeys hanging off every limb of a massive tree.
Leaving Rancho Humo, the drive back to the main road provides a gradual re-entry into the real world. The well-maintained dirt road passes acres of pasture, edged by flowering corteza amarilla trees laying carpets of yellow petals on the ground. Dry season has a very subtle beauty here in Nicoya, especially in the wetlands. And in one way, dry season is even better for wildlife viewing because animals and birds are more concentrated in shrunken water areas. Another plus is you don’t get drenched by rain. But I am looking forward to a return visit in the rainy season, to experience these wetlands in all their watery green glory, too.
Rancho Humo Tours
By request, my tour was geared to birding; visitors can also arrange a customized photo tour. The regular five-hour Rancho Humo tour starts with coffee at the reception center (the former Rancho HumoHotel) and includes an ox-team and horsemanship demonstration, a chance to milk a cow if you are so inclined, and a tour of the wetlands with a bilingual guide. There’s a stop halfway for a fresh-fruit feast, and the tour includes a comida típica lunch back at the rancho. You also take a short walk in the dry forest and plant a native-species tree. There’s a fourperson minimum for this tour ($68 per person, with discounts for groups of 10 or more, to a maximum of 17). You can add a boat trip on the Río Tempisque for an extra $20 per person. Reservations have to be made at least 24 hours in advance. Call 2233-2233 or reserve online at www.ranchohumo.com.
Getting There: After crossing the Río Tempisque bridge, take the right turn 300 meters past the gas station at Quebrada Honda. Take the very next right through the village and continue on this road to a T-junction. Go right 500 meters, then right again at the next intersection, for about 10 km to Rancho Humo. You’ll pass through the villages of Carballito, Coralillo and Pozo de Agua en route. From the main highway, the total distance is 26 km.
What Does It Take to Make a Wetland Work?
In the 1990s, Rancho Humo operated as a hotel but was abandoned a decade ago and fell into disrepair.
Four years ago, William Salom, president of Grupo Interamericano, which includes Rancho Humo and Heredia’s Instituto Politécnico Internacional, bought the property as a country getaway. Salom quickly fell under the spell of this unique habitat and decided to rescue it. He consulted wetland-management experts at the NationalUniversity, who helped him design a project to restore the wetland ecosystem to its natural state.
Four years ago, more than 90 percent of the wetlands dried out in the dry season, says guide Cristian Gamboa, and became too arid to sustain animals, birds and plants.
The reserve’s goal is to ensure that no more than 60 percent ever dries out and to attain a 40-centimeter caudal ecológico – a level of water throughout the wetlands that can sustain the ecosystem here.
How do you restore a wetland? Here’s a synopsis of the main challenges and some of the solutions:
The main problem is depletion of water, partly owing to the decreased flow in the TempisqueRiver, in turn caused by the siphoning off of water for agricultural irrigation. Rancho Humo’s solution was to create a system of locks to capture water during high tides, and then distribute and manage water levels by a system of canals. Using aerial photography, researchers were able to identify original waterways that had been sedimented over. Earthmovers cleared the canals, carefully scooping out the bottoms to create more natural, fauna-friendly, curved bottoms instead of square trenches.
The second major problem is invasive plants, especially tifa (cattails) and palo verde, the hardy, tree-like grass for which this area is famous. Too many of these plants limit the amount of open water the wetlands need to enable fish, shrimp, snails and other small creatures to reproduce and generate enough food for birds and animals. The first action was to remove many of the palo verdes manually and break up the cattails with tractors. But the long-term solution is to put some cattle out to graze on the wetlands, as their hooves break up the cattail roots.
The third challenge is perhaps the toughest equation: Indifference to the value of wetlands plus a lack of experience in restoring them equals irreparable loss of wetlands. Grupo Interamericano’s solution is to increase awareness of wetlands, first by protecting them in an ecological preserve and, secondly, by offering educational – and entertaining – tours to the public.